WEDNESDAY'S New York Times carried a front-page article by Neil A. Lewis headlined "Ashcroft's Terrorism Policies Dismay Some Conservatives." Lewis asserts that Attorney General John Ashcroft is becoming unpopular with religious conservatives who fear that their organizations may be investigated under new anti-terror legislation. Can this possibly be true?
To make his case, Lewis quotes Grover Norquist, the Washington lobbyist and head of Americans for Tax Reform, as saying, Ashcroft's "religious base is now quite troubled by what he's done." And he quotes Paul Weyrich--a somewhat eccentric conservative activist whose star shone brightest in the late 1970s and early 1980s--as saying, "There is suddenly great concern that what was passed in the wake of 9-11 were things that had little to do with catching terrorists but a lot to do with increasing the strength of government to infiltrate and spy on conservative organizations."
It will come as news to most religious conservatives in America that Norquist and Weyrich are serving as their spokesmen in Washington. When it comes to judging the views of the religious right, Lewis is on stronger ground when he quotes Ken Connor of the Family Research Council, who Lewis reports has "lost enthusiasm" and is "dismayed" by Ashcroft's performance.
Except that Connor isn't "dismayed" by Ashcroft. "I was a little concerned about the way [the New York Times] framed" the story, says Connor. It seemed as if "I'm on balance a critic of Ashcroft, and I'm not."
"Mr. Ashcroft," he continues, "I think, is a man who's well regarded in the main. He's done a good, solid job; his record isn't perfect, but nor would I expect it to be. . . . I would rate Ashcroft's performance on the whole good."
Does Connor believe that a group like the Family Research Council could be classified a terrorist organization under new Justice guidelines? "No," he says. "I simply raise the question that the day will come when a [Janet] Reno-type Justice Department" might use the new regulations to go after pro-life groups.
Fair enough. Connor's concern about the future is understandable, but a look at the actual guidelines (you can download them in PDF here) makes it pretty hard to believe that the FBI could classify conservative groups as terrorists. The guidelines spell out activities that classify a group as being terrorist: "engaging in attacks involving or threatening massive loss of life or injury, mass destruction, or endangerment of the national security"; "acquiring, or taking steps towards acquiring, biological agents or toxins, toxic chemicals or their precursors, radiological or nuclear materials, explosives, or other destructive or dangerous materials"; "the creation, maintenance, or support of an armed paramilitary organization"; and so on. And if pro-life groups were ever to do these things, then of course they should be infiltrated and investigated.
Where is this "religious conservative" groundswell? Chuck Colson of PrisonFellowship Ministries read the New York Times story. Is he, too, dismayed by Ashcroft? "I was dismayed by the story," he says. "But not surprised." "I have known John Ashcroft for 20 years and have nothing but the utmost respect for him. And his performance as attorney general has done nothing but enhance my respect for him," Colson adds.
When asked if Ashcroft's counter-terrorist policies represent a risk to conservative groups, Colson says, "Of course that's a risk--it's more of a risk without him than with him. . . . It is better to temporarily lose certain liberties in order to avoid a catastrophe." Paul Hetrick, a vice president at Focus on the Family, adds, "We've never expected 100 percent perfection from anyone in D.C.--but that said, we're very pleased with Ashcroft."
Which leaves the conservative dismay on the shoulders of Weyrich and Norquist. Deciphering Weyrich's motives is nearly impossible. But Norquist is much easier to understand. For several years, Norquist has been trying to convince Republicans that Muslims are a natural GOP constituency (see Franklin Foer's informative New Republic piece on Norquist, Fevered Pitch). September 11 threw a spanner in the works of Norquist's project, especially as American Muslim groups reacted with ambivalence, if not hostility, to the fact that the war on terrorism, of necessity, would focus on Arabs. In the ongoing struggle between these groups and the Justice Department, Norquist has been a consistent critic of Ashcroft. This is also in keeping with Norquist's longstanding, anti-government brand of conservatism--his so-called "leave-us-alone coalition," which has been a harder sell since last September. Not that Norquist has relented. After the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, he kept his powder dry for less than a week. By September 17, he was denouncing Ashcroft's plans for the war on terror as "a real danger for civil liberties."
So Norquist has an Islamo-libertarian axe to grind. Bully for him. But that makes him doubly unreliable as a guide to the feelings of "religious conservatives"--unless by that phrase the Times means Norquist's American Muslim allies, who are, indeed, dismayed by Ashcroft's policies.
Gary Bauer, another religious conservative, says, "I think that Mr. Norquist needs to take a deep breath and realize that the danger to American liberties does not rest in the office of John Ashcroft, but rather in the radical Islamists who are trying to destroy America."
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.